Hurricanes, house fires, cancer, white-water rafting accidents, plane crashes, vicious attacks in dark alleyways. Nobody asks for any of it. But to their surprise, many people find that enduring such a harrowing ordeal ultimately changes them for the better. Their refrain might go something like this: "I wish it hadn't happened, but I'm a better person for it."
We love to hear the stories of people who have been transformed by their tribulations, perhaps because they testify to a bona fide psychological truth, one that sometimes gets lost amid endless reports of disaster: There is a built-in human capacity to flourish under the most difficult circumstances. Positive reactions to profoundly disturbing experiences are not limited to the toughest or the bravest. In fact, roughly half the people who struggle with adversity say that their lives have in some ways improved.
This and other promising findings about the life-changing effects of crises are the province of the new science of post-traumatic growth. This fledgling field has already proved the truth of what once passed as bromide: What doesn't kill you can actually make you stronger. Post-traumatic stress is far from the only possible outcome. In the wake of even the most terrifying experiences, only a small proportion of adults become chronically troubled. More commonly, people rebound -- or even eventually thrive.
Those who weather adversity well are living proof of one of the paradoxes of happiness: We need more than pleasure to live the best possible life. Our contemporary quest for happiness has shriveled to a hunt for bliss -- a life protected from bad feelings, free from pain and confusion.
This anodyne definition of well-being leaves out the better half of the story, the rich, full joy that comes from a meaningful life. It is the dark matter of happiness, the ineffable quality we admire in wise men and women and aspire to cultivate in our own lives. It turns out that some of the people who have suffered the most, who have been forced to contend with shocks they never anticipated and to rethink the meaning of their lives, may have the most to tell us about that profound and intensely fulfilling journey that philosophers used to call the search for "the good life."
This broader definition of good living blends deep satisfaction and a profound connection to others through empathy. It is dominated by happy feelings but seasoned also with nostalgia and regret. "Happiness is only one among many values in human life," contends Laura King, a psychologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Compassion, wisdom, altruism, insight, creativity -- sometimes only the trials of adversity can foster these qualities, because sometimes only drastic situations can force us to take on the painful process of change. To live a full human life, a tranquil, carefree existence is not enough. We also need to grow -- and sometimes growing hurts.
In a dark room in Queens, New York, 31-year-old fashion designer Tracy Cyr believed she was dying. A few months before, she had stopped taking the powerful immune-suppressing drugs that kept her arthritis in check. She never anticipated what would happen: a withdrawal reaction that eventually left her in total body agony and neurological meltdown. The slightest movement -- trying to swallow, for example -- was excruciating. Even the pressure of her cheek on the pillow was almost unbearable.
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